Obama’s Highway Chief: Wishy-Washy on Emissions?

Victor Mendez, nominated by the White House to lead the Federal
Highway Administration (FHWA), spent more than an hour this morning
with the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee — but the most
illuminating moment in the hearing came as the clock was running down.

Victor_Mendez_1683.jpgFHWA nominee Victor Mendez testified before the Senate today. (Photo: transportation1.org)

Sen.
Thomas Carper (D-DE) asked the nominee a simple question: What does
Mendez, a former Arizona state DOT director and ex-president of AASHTO, think of recent legislation codifying "complete streets" principles and expanding the "Safe Routes to School" program on childhood bike and pedestrian safety?

Mendez, whose legacy in Arizona
centers on a massive Phoenix freeway project, wavered a bit. Both ideas
"fit neatly into what I believe is Secretary LaHood’s livability
concept," Mendez replied, describing Safe Routes to School as a good
thing for his state but not addressing "complete streets" directly.

Though
Carper was openly dissatisfied with the answer, he moved on to an even
simpler question: Given that previous hikes in auto fuel-efficiency
standards have ultimately led to more driving (and increased
congestion), does Mendez think that lowering carbon emissions from the
transportation sector should be a goal of the upcoming climate change
bill?

Theoretically, it should have been easy for Mendez to endorse that concept, especially on the same day that his future boss blogged on the benefits
of transit. But if the future highways chief encouraged decreasing
transportation emissions, then — horrors! — he might be open to the
transit sector’s plea for a share of the emissions allocations in the climate bill.

So
Mendez wavered again, deferring to Transportation Secretary LaHood. "I
think he’s going to yield to you for advice on this," Carper said,
asking his question one more time.

One more time, Mendez
ducked the query. Finally, he asked the senator if reducing
transportation-related emissions implied endorsing a specific policy or
a general goal. When Carper replied that a general goal was all Mendez
would need to endorse, the nominee did so — in measured tones.

Perhaps
it’s too much to ask that a former leader of the highway-building lobby
be more openly committed to decreasing the environmental impact of
transportation, which accounts for a third of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions.

But if Mendez can’t bring himself to openly support the "complete streets" plan backed by President Obama,
and if he couldn’t sign on to a specific policy for reducing emissions,
it’s worth asking whether he supports national climate legislation in
the first place. And if he doesn’t, what’s he doing in the
administration?

Late Update: It’s worth noting that Mendez was first appointed to the Arizona DOT’s top spot by a Republican, then-Gov. Jane Dee Hull.

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